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High Cholesterol and Your Risk for Heart Disease

By Lisa Tarasenko, PharmD, MBA  — This post originally appeared on Get Healthy Stay Healthy

Did you know that our bodies actually need cholesterol to keep us healthy? Your body creates and uses cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids to help break down food for digestion. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in body tissue and circulates in the blood. It’s made in your body, specifically in the liver, and is also absorbed from cholesterol-containing foods that you eat, such as beef, chicken, and eggs. If cholesterol levels in the blood become too high, it becomes a problem because it puts us at risk for heart attack and stroke.

The Good, the Bad, and the Healthy
There are two types of cholesterol; you’ve probably heard them referred to as “bad cholesterol” and “good cholesterol.” Here’s why they are referred to that way.

LDL (or low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is known as the bad cholesterol. When LDL levels are too high, it can build up in the walls of your blood vessels as thick, hard deposits called plaque that can clog arteries. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. Plaque can build up for several years, and then harden over time. Hardened plaque narrows the artery which then reduces blood flow through the artery. The plaque can also break off and form a blood clot which can also block blood flow through an artery. If blood flow to the brain is reduced or blocked, it can result in a stroke. When blood flow is decreased or cut off to the heart, it can cause a heart attack.

According to the Centers of Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), there are approximately 71 million American adults with high levels of bad cholesterol—LDL. HDL (or high-density lipoprotein) is called the “good cholesterol” because it carries the excess cholesterol you no longer need back to your liver where it is removed from the body.

Basically, too much of the bad cholesterol, LDL, or not enough of the good cholesterol, HDL, can put you at risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke. High levels of the good cholesterol, HDL, may decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Knowing Your Risk
There are a number of risk factors that can cause high cholesterol. Some of these things you cannot do anything about, such as your family history. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. Some people inherit genes from their mother and or father that cause them to make too much cholesterol.

Here are some other risk factors for high cholesterol and/or heart disease in general:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure

In general, the more risk factors you have and the higher your LDL is, the greater your chances are of developing heart disease or having a heart attack or stroke.

What You Can Do
It’s important to know that high cholesterol does not have any signs and symptoms. The first step to prevention or management of high cholesterol is to talk with your doctor about checking your cholesterol levels (done with a blood test) and assessing your risk for a heart attack or stroke. You may want to jot down or print some questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol.

Lowering Your Risk
There are a number of things that you can do to help lower your risk for heart disease. One way is through lifestyle habits—these include the following:

  • Eat a Healthy and Balanced Diet. Eating foods with certain fats such as saturated fat or trans fats also increases the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. Therefore, reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level
  • Lose Weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It can also increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL levels
  • Exercise Regularly. Not being physically active is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular physical activity can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Be sure to speak with your health care provider before starting any new exercise program
  • Don’t Smoke. Smoking is a factor that increases the risk of heart disease in people who have high cholesterol

If your doctor decides that cholesterol-lowering drugs are needed, they are meant to be used together with diet and exercise. Current treatment guidelines for high cholesterol focus on lowering your overall risk of heart disease and stroke rather than on “chasing” cholesterol numbers. Drug treatment is usually recommended for people who are at increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke such as those who currently have heart disease, have very high levels of LDL, have diabetes, or for those that have a number of risk factors that put them at risk for heart attack. Remember that the first step is knowing your risk for heart attack and stroke, and then discussing ways to prevent or manage high cholesterol with your health care provider.

Continued Research
Researchers continue to study and learn more about the risk factors for heart disease. To search for ongoing clinical trials that focus on cardiovascular disease, please visit Examples of search terms may include: heart disease, stroke, heart attack, high cholesterol. Currently recruiting Pfizer trials may be searched at Pfizer: Find a Trial. Be sure to speak to your doctor about available clinical trials and whether enrolling in one is right for you.

Lisa Tarasenko, PharmD, MBA, is a Senior Medical Director on the Cardiovascular/Metabolic Team at Pfizer.

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According to the Centers of Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), there are approximately 71 million American adults with high levels of bad cholesterol—LDL.